Why Your Story Conflict Isn’t Working (And How to Fix It)

Why Your Story Conflict Isn’t Working (And How to Fix It)

Conflict is one of those aspects of writing that has caused more than its fair share of writer frustrations.

Like many writers, I’ve spent countless hours creating conflict in my novels. I’ve thrown exciting obstacles in my protagonists paths, I’ve developed sinister antagonists to thwart my heroes, I’ve devised cruel ways to put my characters through mental anguish — and my beta readers still told me, “This book needs more conflict.”

Because despite what we “know” about conflict as writers, the concept isn’t so cut and dry.

It’s not just about the obstacles in the path, or the bad guy with the evil plan, or the mental anguish of the hero. It’s not the plot or the character arc, even though we often talk about it like it is.

It’s a tapestry woven from multiple aspects of writing that work together to create a feeling that victory will not come easily to the characters, and it leaves readers dying to know what the protagonist is going to do about it.

Over the years, I’ve pinpointed the three most common reasons writers stumble over conflict.

1. Conflict isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” issue

Conflict is the push and pull of the character as she experiences the story.

It’s the combination of external challenges with internal struggles that rounds out the conflict and gives meaning to what the protagonist does. These two sides work in tandem to illustrate why the problem of the novel (the core conflict) is worth reading about.

What works for one story might not work for another, and even within the same novel, you’ll have different aspects of conflict depending on the needs of the scene.

Something might technically be a conflict (two sides in opposition), but it doesn’t make a good story conflict, because a strong story conflict has to also create a situation that drives a plot and leads readers through that story.

For example, a shootout between outlaws holed up in a cabin, while the sheriff’s posse tries to apprehend them, has plenty of conflict, but two sides shooting at each other for hours isn’t a very interesting story.

If the situation doesn’t do anything to create a strong story, it won’t feel like an actual conflict.

This is tough, because what constitutes a “strong story” can vary by person. Readers have biases, likes and dislikes, and that contributes to how they regard story conflict depending on the genre they enjoy.

And they’re all right, and all wrong, because different genres use conflict in different ways, and what readers look for varies. Different genres require different approaches when developing the conflict.

2. It’s not always clear what people mean when they say “conflict”

If two writers are coming at conflict from two directions, there will very likely be misunderstandings about what they’re actually talking about.

Getting feedback such as, “Your novel lacks conflict” isn’t helpful if the person giving that feedback is referring to a different type of conflict.

For example: If Writer A thinks conflict is about the internal struggle of a character, she might think Writer B’s adventure novel that’s heavy on plot has no conflict — even though it does.

In contrast, Writer B could read Writer A’s novel and think nothing ever happens because the conflict focuses on the internal and not the external.

One conflict is external and requires external actions; the other is internal and requires more reflection and thought. Neither is plotted or written the same way, and trying to plot the internal conflict the same as the external conflict will lead to some troublesome scenes.

You might look at such a comment, point directly to the core conflict of your novel and disregard the advice (and then pull your hair out when you keep getting rejected).

Context is everything, and if you don’t understand which type of conflict someone is referring to, it can lead to a lot of frustration and confusion. You might think your novel has all the conflict it needs, so any “needs more conflict” feedback you get just flat out doesn’t make sense to you.

story conflict

3. Using the wrong conflict makes it harder to write a novel

Use the wrong conflict and things don’t quite mesh in a novel.

This is most often seen when trying to plot using the internal conflict of the character arc.

For example, an internal conflict might work wonderfully to support the character arc, but internal conflicts don’t create plot — they just make it emotionally harder to overcome those external challenges. What the character physically does to resolve that internal conflict is the plot.

Say you have a novel about a woman with a criminal past who gets out of prison and wants to go the straight and narrow and get her life back together. Many writers would say this book is about “A woman who gets her life back together after she’s released from prison.” And they’re right — but many of those same writers would have trouble creating a plot to support this story.

The reason? There’s no conflict in that description of the book. It’s more the description of the character arc.

“Getting her life back together” doesn’t show a plot, because nothing in this statement provides an external goal to pursue. There’s also no conflict — nothing is preventing her from getting her life back together. Without those details, the goal isn’t specific enough to know what external challenges she might face as she tries to get her life back together.

Trying to plot with a character arc can create a lot of frustration for writers. The focus is on the internal struggle to change, not the external action, so the specific tasks (the goals) aren’t as defined as they need to be. It’s like trying to bake a cake without putting it into the oven. The external heat is what turns the ingredients into dessert.

At its most basic, conflict (internal or external) is the challenge to overcome whatever is preventing the protagonist from doing what needs to be done — physically, emotionally or mentally — to resolve a problem and move forward.

Once you understand how conflict works in your fiction, you’ll know what each scene needs and how to best develop the different layers and aspects of your story’s conflict.

Do you struggle with creating conflict? What about conflict frustrates you?

Filed Under: Craft
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14 comments

  • Brenda Hill says:

    Excellent article no matter what our genre. Good material for my writing groups.

  • All excellent points!

    I’d like to add another possible reason a writer might give a story too little or the wrong kind of conflict:

    Falling in love with your protagonist.

    It’s only natural that your main character becomes real to you, and that you care about and even identify with him or her. (It’s often said that every first novel is a thinly disguised autobiography. For some authors, you can leave out the “first” in that sentence.) That’s okay, and can make it easier for you to write the character in such a way that the reader cares, too.

    It becomes a problem, however, when you find yourself protecting the protagonist from the conflict that drives the story. Is your villain pulling his punches for no apparent reason? Maybe you’re protecting your protagonist. Are other characters more cooperative than makes sense, or do convenient coincidences pile up in ways that strain credulity? These, too, can be the results of a writer’s protective impulses.

    Let your protagonist face real dangers, internal and external. He or she may not end up as the person you set out to create. That’s okay, in fact, more than okay. It’s what makes the story worth reading.

    Trish O’Connor
    Owner, Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    Editorial Services and Writer’s Resources
    epiclesisconsulting.com

    • Janice Hardy says:

      Good addition! Not wanting to be mean to a character you love is definitely common, especially with newer writers.

      My personal adage: “Whatever doesn’t kill my characters makes them more interesting.”

    • Jane Fugee says:

      Thank you both for this. It gives me permission to work on a project that is a thinly veiled autobiography. And the thoughts about conflict are incredibly valuable. It helps me understand more about plot, which is not something I’ve ever written before. I’m feeling intimidated about that and as a result, my work has been really scattered, mostly as a form of procrastination which I’ve used to avoid dealing with the challenges of writing a longer piece.

  • Linda says:

    The trouble I’ve been facing with my WIP is the fact it’s heavy on internal conflict. My last novel was heavy on external, which I found much easier to create excitement and follow a path through conflict.

    Physical conflict was easier for me, but I’m not giving up the challenge to follow the internal path. I’ve been trying to create both, and I think that’s where I stumble. It’s beginning to dawn on me that maybe by allowing the character to experience internal conflict DUE TO external situations is probably the way to play this one. There doesn’t need to be some scary thing or person lurking in the corners to add excitement and keep a story moving forward.

    FYI, my last novel was a romantic suspense whereas this work is a women’s romantic fiction.

    I love the challenges of learning new things and new ways of doing things. Still learning… Thank you for this article to help with the process. It did!

    • Janice Hardy says:

      External conflict is much easier to write, because you have something physically to work with. Internal is much tougher because you need to find something external that represents and illustrates that internal conflict.

      Your light bulb moment is dead on: It works well when one conflict influences, causes, or makes the other harder. I think you’ll find it a little easier to balance the two now 🙂

      I think we always keep learning new things. That’s what keeps us and our stories fresh. Best of luck with your story!

  • Colin says:

    Thank you for the outlining of conflict. My novels tend to have outer physical conflict within the plot line In a sequel novel the conflict centres around the married hero having to resist flirtation and advances from a young woman, while his ship is under attack from a patrol boat.

  • Glynis Jolly says:

    I liked your similarity between using and character arc and baking a cake. Although I have been using external conflict to move the story along, I have been doing it without knowing the reason why. This is important for me because my story is more about the internal struggle. Having this understanding is going to help. Thanks, Janice.

    • Janice Hardy says:

      You’re welcome. Sometimes just understanding what we do naturally makes a huge difference. We can better control how we tell our stories.

  • Adan Ramie says:

    I never thought about it that way, but knowing the TYPE on conflict you’re talking about can do wonders for making a conversation between writer and reader much more informative. Thanks for the tips, Janice!

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